A few weeks ago, wet conditions were plaguing farmers trying to complete their spring planting, but this past weekend the wet and stormy weather took a turn for the worse. Beginning on Friday, the area was rocked by wind and rain causing downed trees, mudslides, flooding, power outages and other problems.
Things really got going sometime after 7 a.m. Friday and one of the first major storm events happened in the Village of Bell Center.
“They are saying it was a straight-line wind, but the trees are down every which way,” said Bell Center resident Jack Heisz. “If it was a straight-line wind, these trees would all be down in the same direction.”
Heisz and his neighbors were more inclined to believe that what they had experienced shortly after 7 a.m. was a tornado. They described what started as a quiet rain and then turned to a sickly green sky with deluging rain and finally became pitch black.
“It was so dark you couldn’t see anything,” said Heisz of the storm that did some of its worst destruction to the village of 118.
Several other local residents who were on the scene agreed with the idea that it was a tornado. Kile Martz, who watched the storm from his River Road residence in Gays Mills, also noted the green color of the sky, which was the same as he had seen previously when tornadoes touched down in Missouri where he was raised.
Dennis Kern, who took some of the photos of storm damage used in this edition of the Independent-Scout, also observed that the evidence he saw at the scene in Bell Center showed wind had come from many different directions as might be expected in a tornado versus a straight-line windstorm.
Well, was it a tornado?
“I’m no meteorologist, but I would guess it was a small tornado,” Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick said later.
To his knowledge, authorities did not come to Bell Center to determine if the storm was in fact a tornado. However, McCullick said there was a definite path of destruction from River Road through Bell Center to Walker Road and on up to County W.
The Gays Mills Fire Department was called at around 7:30 a.m. to assist and had firefighters on the ground within moments. They continued to assist with power line safety and tree removal throughout much of the day.
The Crawford County Sheriff’s Department responded to calls around 7:30 a.m. Friday morning that high winds or a tornado had “knocked over buildings” in the Village of Bell Center and that “there may not be a Bell Center.” Upon their arrival, the officers were relieved to find that although the damage was bad, it was not as bad as the phone calls had led dispatchers to believe it was.
A shed had been destroyed and trees had fallen on residences. However, in several cases, the damage seemed limited compared to what might be expected. Nobody in the village was injured.
“The property damage looked minimal,” McCullick said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
The sheriff estimated about 30 large trees in the village were taken down by the storm and large power poles along Highway 131 were snapped at the base and being supported by the wires.
The sheriff’s department arrived in Bell Center within 15 minutes of getting the call and began to see what the residents needed. Upon their arrival, the officers of the sheriff’s department found the Gays Mills Fire Department on the scene going house-to-house checking on the residents.
“The Gays Mills Fire Department did an absolutely tremendous job,” McCullick said. “I can’t say enough good things about the job they did.”
The sheriff said that between the efforts of the firefighters and Bell Center residents things were already being addressed by the time the members of the sheriff’s department arrived.
The sheriff’s deputies along with the help of the firefighters began running a stretch of one-lane roadway on Highway 131 in an attempt to keep drivers back from the large power poles, which had been snapped off at their bases. When utility workers arrived, they assured the officers and firefighters that poles being held up by the wires had a very minimal chance of falling. With that advice, traffic was allowed to resume its two-lane travel on the roadway.
“We stayed in Bell Center quite awhile to see what they needed,” McCullick recalled. Chief Deputy Butch Hanson got some bottled water for the residents from Gays Mills. Later, Crawford County Emergency Government Director Roger Martin delivered a pallet of bottled water donated by Wal-Mart.
Power outages occurred all over Crawford County and northern Grant County during the weekend. One of the largest began Friday morning around 7 a.m. and included not only Bell Center, but Gays Mills, Soldiers Grove, Mount Sterling, Seneca and lots of townships in the northern part of the county. Slowly power was restored across the county as the day went on. Power that went out at 7 a.m. was on by 9:30 a.m. in Seneca and 1 p.m. in Gays Mills and 4 p.m. in Soldiers Grove.
Across the county on Friday morning, there were plenty of other problems as heavy rain and high winds toppled trees onto power lines and hillsides began to washout onto roadways.
The Crawford County Highway Department mounted snowplows on their trucks and used them to push back rock that had come down into the roadways from hillsides.
Flash flooding in Prairie du Chien submerged local streets and restricted travel temporarily on Friday morning.
By Saturday morning, there were more problems as heavy rain Friday night took its toll and the City of Boscobel flooded. In all, it was estimated that almost 600 residences in the city would be affected by flooding or backed sewage. Meanwhile, mudslides closed Highway 60 east of the Boscobel bridge.
After a brief respite from the stormy weather Saturday afternoon, the storms resumed with a torrential force Saturday night. Concerns began to center on Gays Mills where the rising Kickapoo River had authorities preparing for a repeat of the 2007 flash flood.
With the heavy deluge that came Saturday night, the Kickapoo River rose out of its banks and the Gays Mills Fire Department began asking the closest residents to the river to evacuate by 10:30 p.m.
It appeared to be holding steady at one point, so the acting Gays Mills Fire Department Chief Harry Heisz sent most of his volunteers home, only to call them back out by 2 a.m. as the water began to rapidly rise again.
McCullick was again impressed by the actions of the Gays Mills Fire Department and an Emergency Operations Center was quickly created in the fire department on Saturday night.
“I’ve never seen it come so fast,” McCullick said of the Kickapoo River in Gays Mills last Saturday night. While the sheriff traveled toward Steuben to assess the situation there, he heard on his radio that an evacuation of the residents most in harm’s way from floodwater in Gays Mills was underway.
“We met with the Sheriff, DNR, and Emergency Management shortly after 2 a.m. and made our response plan,” Heisz said. “The prediction was that the flood would crest at 18.1 feet, so we went door to door and asked the remaining residents to evacuate.”
Firefighter Steve Randall recounted the difficulties that can occur from those who don’t want to evacuate.
“You get someone saying, ‘It won’t get to my first floor or I can go upstairs,’ but when they have a couple inches of water on that first floor, they want out and it’s a lot more dangerous,” Randall said.
With most residents gone and those remaining preparing and watching the situation closely, the waters rose to Railroad Street and then held steady for four hours before beginning to recede mid-morning on Sunday, having risen to just 16.63 feet, a foot-and-a-half below predictions.
“The volunteers we had from outside the fire department really made a difference,” Heisz said, noting that approximately 20 people, young and old, came out to help. “We had a lot of teenagers. A bunch of them helped out with the locker and the bars and over at the post office. They did a really great job.”
Heisz emphasized that with the relocation, elevations, and buyouts of the older village properties, responding was far safer as there were fewer people to move out of harms way.
In all, eight homes and three businesses were evacuated in Gays Mills Saturday night and early Sunday morning.
Damage to roadways from mudslides caused some of the most serious problems experienced in Crawford County over the weekend.
“Utica and Marietta Townships were the worst hit so far, from what I know,” said Crawford County Highway Commissioner Dennis Peloch.
Substantial amounts of damage were also seen in Clayton, Seneca and Haney Townships as well, the highway commissioner noted.
“Roads are mostly passable,” Peloch said. “Highway 60/61 by the Boscobel bridge will be closed for a few days. There are thousands and thousands of yards of dirt to move from the mudslide there.”
Worse yet may be the closure the department had to make on Highway 35 just north of Prairie du Chien near the Falling Rock Walleye Club, where a mudslide came down and covered the highway and railroad tracks. Peloch said the county had to make a priority of clearing the tracks and will now have to figure out a way to stabilize the hillside.
“It’s going to be an interesting problem and will probably haunt us for years,” Peloch said. “The last time we had to deal with this spot, it was years of issues we dealt with.”
Highway 35 between Prairie du Chien and Lynxville will be closed for weeks while they sort out the stabilization issue, according to Peloch. Until it can be resolved, drivers are being routed through Prairie du Chien north on Highway 27 through Eastman to County F, then west to Lynxville.
Additional closures at County S at the Kickapoo River and Bridge Street in Steuben awaited the recession of floodwaters.
Despite repeated power outages, the electrical issues appeared to be resolved by Sunday night.
“As of last night, we had everyone back on,” said Scenic Rivers CEO Steve Lucas on Monday morning. “We had widespread outages. It was a rather strange weather pattern. Every time we thought we were making progress, another storm would hit.”
The worst of what they dealt with was in northern Grant County and throughout Crawford County, according to Lucas.
“Crawford County, with its topography, was a mess,” Lucas said, noting that some of the longest delays in reviving service occurred in the Bell Center area. Some customers went 13 hours without power when utility poles were lost.
The electric cooperative covers rural Lafayette, Grant and Crawford counties. Because most of Grant and Lafayette were minimally affected, they were able to transfer those crews to assist elsewhere.
“All of my folks had very long weekends – when adversity is high, the performance is best,” Lucas said. “We really appreciate the patience of our membership during this. When times are trying, we all really pull together.”
Alliant Energy, which provides electricity within the villages and cities in the area, reported outages to over 1,000 customers, generally resolved in two to five hours.
As of Tuesday morning, Crawford County Emergency Management Director roger Martin placed damage estimates to public infrastructure at just over $4 million and $340,000 for private, non-business properties with reports still coming in.
“A State of Emergency was declared by the county chair late Friday night, early Saturday morning,” Martin said of Crawford County Chairperson Pete Flesch’s action. “That remains in effect as we watch what happens through Wednesday morning.”
Mudslides are a major concern countywide, with the ground thoroughly saturated, according to Martin.
“We have hills sliding right now,” Martin said. “If we get more rain…”
The National Weather Service reported rainfall totals for June 21-23 of 7.11 inches in Soldiers Grove, 6.15 inches in Gays Mills, and 9.05 inches in Boscobel.
A request was placed for National Guard assistance, but it was unclear if that support is available. With so many deployed, Martin said he was unsure that help would be forthcoming.
An additional concern for Martin was the failure of Crawford County’s Code Red warning system during the recent severe weather incidents. Outside of Prairie du Chien, Eastman, and Seneca, Martin said the system appeared to fail entirely or only worked sporadically.
“We have the 911 dispatch working to resolve this issue,” Martin said. “We hope to have answers and a fixed system soon.”
In the meantime, Martin said sandbags are available in Prairie du Chien, though they lack the resources to deliver them. Those who want them can pick them up.
The Crawford County Emergency Management office also has flood clean-up kits available from the Red Cross.
Crawford County Public Health has private well test kits available for those whose wells were inundated.
“We recommend that those whose wells are effected by flooding not drink or cook with their water until they have tested it for contamination,” Martin said.